The yardsticks by which we measure our well-being—indeed, future survival—are increasingly closely knit with data. This wasn’t always so in India, mainly on account of illiteracy and superstition.

But now, data has assumed a pivotal place in our daily lives. Take air pollution for instance—the quality of the air we breathe can mean the difference between a healthy life and early death. The quality of air depends on where we live: this is proven by data. The closer we are to cities, the dirtier the air is likely to be. This health emergency that Indian city dwellers have found themselves to be in has ensured that the data on it has sunk into the urban consciousness of the world’s second most populous nation.

This is a recent trend. When I returned to India in 2013, for instance, the perception was that there was little anyone could do about air pollution—it was the necessary fallout of economic growth. Early industrial societies (Victorian England) were cited. Face masks were laughed off and air purifiers viewed as elitist.

Yet, both are now commonplace. In the winters, when the smallest air pollutants settle in our lungs, traffic police put on their masks. As to air purifiers, the question on the lips of middle-class India is not whether to buy, but how many and which one.

What turned the thinking? Data. More than anything else, it’s the daily count of particulate matters (PM2.5 and PM10) that is flashed on giant digital screens on roads and can be accessed at the push of a button on our mobile phones. Just as England checks for rain, India checks for PM2.5.

As the country approaches a series of elections, beginning with those to the assemblies of five states this year and culminating with the 2019 general election, the quality of data is set to assume an important place in campaign debates—which is just as it should be amid rising literacy levels. Jobs, for instance, have already become a source of major controversy, with a series of reports, including Mint data analyses, showing the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government failing to redeem its 2014 election pledge to create more employment.

But jobs and clean air are yardsticks that yield “tangible" benefits—food on the table and well-being. An incumbent who can prove it has created good jobs at a much faster pace than the previous government will get votes in a general election, as will the government of a city-state that can show a measure of success in cleaning up the air.

After all, the Indian voter is famously warm to immediate gratification. There are, nevertheless, a host of other yardsticks that are hard to measure accurately, whose benefits take long to gestate, but which remain central to the aspirations of Indians.

Seventeen such goals were agreed by the United Nations in September 2015 after a lengthy consultation process where India played a leading role. These Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, described as “the world’s best plan to build a better world for people and our planet", must be achieved by 2030. Indeed, how well India does on these goals will be crucial to the overall success of “the world’s best plan". And crucial, in turn, to how well India does is the quality of its data.

Earlier this month, an international group of information specialists came together at the UK’s House of Lords to mark the launch of a report on the importance of reliable data and statistics in international development, and the challenges and opportunities posed by digital records. The report, titled A Matter of Trust: Records as the foundation for building integrity and accountability into data and statistics to support the SDGs, is the result of a two-year project exploring the importance of reliable information in the drive to achieve ambitious development targets.

“The inability to measure progress because of inadequate, inaccurate, incomplete, inaccessible or flawed statistics can lead to misguided decisions and is likely to undermine the achievement of SDGs. Failure to ‘get the statistics right’ can result in wrong decisions being made, wrong strategies being adopted and wrong laws, policies and standards being established. It also can lead to a significant waste of resources," says the report.

Although the report is based on a situation analysis built around a fictional poor African state called Amania, there is little doubt that its central message is equally applicable to large developing countries such as India as indeed to developed nations.

India is in a class of its own in terms of the advances it has made in data collection, information technology and dissemination. It is home to some of the world’s largest development and jobs programmes, which, in turn, are dependent on the integrity and robustness of its digital data collection system.

Yet, the story of India’s ambitious data-driven development schemes is mixed, according to Prof James Manor of the School of Advanced Studies in London, a respected India specialist, who was one of the speakers at House of Lords event.

Manor, in his paper titled The Potential—Constructive and Destructive—of Information Technology for Records Management, illustrated his point through India’s experiences with two programmes, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme and the Aadhaar unique identity scheme.

While the MGNREG Act was successful in generating employment as the world’s biggest jobs programme, Manor argued, the Aadhaar programme, by its insistence on linking the delivery of welfare benefits to the 12-digit unique identity scheme and “in its haste and drive for control", had driven many to further destitution, malnutrition, sickness and out of education.

“These two cases—MGNREGA and Aadhaar—demonstrate that advances in IT have made records management a more formidable force than ever before. But they also indicate that it can serve both constructive and destructive purposes. Excitement about its positive impact is plainly warranted, but so are anxieties about its Orwellian potential," Manor concludes.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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